Melinda Gates’ Philosophy on Empathy

The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

There’s a quote in Melinda Gates’ new book, The Moment of Lift, that I love. “All of us have to let our hearts break,” she writes. “It’s the price of being present to someone who is suffering.” As co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she’s learned that lesson firsthand, meeting people in desperate circumstances worldwide. Read below for our conversation about using empathy to connect with others.

Katie Couric: This book is billed as a “call to action for women’s empowerment.” What do you hope it’s able to achieve and inspire?
Melinda Gates: This book is a chance to tell my story, but more importantly, it’s the chance to tell the stories of women I’ve met around the world. By sharing their stories with me, they called me to action. By sharing their stories here, I hope to do the same for others.

This is certainly an unprecedented moment for women. But whether it’s truly transformational is up to us. There’s nothing inevitable about what happens next. If we want to seize this opportunity to create lasting change for women in this country and around the world, it’s going to require all of us to step up and speak out for equality—in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our communities. I hope that this book helps readers start to imagine what shape that can take in their own lives.

I love this line: “All of us have to let our hearts break; it’s the price of being present to someone who is suffering.” How did you come to learn that lesson personally?
There are a lot of times when I’m traveling for the foundation that I see things that are really upsetting—young girls who have been forced into marriages, communities where every mother I meet has lost a child, parents who have a hard time imagining how their children will ever break out of poverty.

It hasn’t gotten any easier for me—and frankly, it shouldn’t. Because if I’m turning away or sealing myself off, then I’m not really learning what I’m there to learn. And worse, I’m not offering others my heart.

Empathy can be painful, but even when it is—maybe even especially when it is—it’s essential. It’s one of the most important, most powerful forces on this planet. It’s what makes it possible for us to connect to others, and that’s the highest purpose in life I know.

There’s a very powerful moment in the book that you describe with a young mother in northern India who asks you to take her children home because she had lost hope for their futures. How was that moment a turning point for you in terms of addressing the issue of contraception? How did you gather the courage to take on that issue, knowing the controversy it would attract?
I never in a million years would’ve imagined that I’d become a global advocate for contraceptives. I’m a practicing Catholic who doesn’t like to give speeches! Much less speeches where I say, “Look, like billions of other people on the planet, I have sex with my husband and use contraceptives.” But the bottom line was that I couldn’t turn my back on the women I’d met.

When that woman—her name was Meena—asked me to take her children with me, it was a moment I’ll never forget. It was wrenching. But the very worst part of her story is that it’s an all too common one.

There are more than 200 million women around the world who don’t want to get pregnant but don’t have access to modern contraceptives. I have heard from so many of the women I’ve met that this is the single biggest barrier holding them back. And that just resonated with me so much. My family, my career, my life as I know it—I owe them all to contraceptives. How can I tell a woman that she deserves something less?

Compared to what women around the world are doing every day, what I’m doing isn’t all that brave. Speaking out on this controversial topic did take some courage, sure. But the women I’ve met who are standing up to their husbands and their mother-in-laws and anyone else who tells them that they don’t deserve a voice in their futures? What they’re doing takes a lot more courage. That’s what inspires me.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there has been a growing tide of resentment in this country about income inequality. What is your perspective on that issue as someone with great means?
Rising income inequality is extremely concerning, and I’m one of the many people who thinks this is an important conversation to have. On the policy side, I believe in progressive taxes, and I believe in an estate tax. I don’t think that enormous inherited wealth is a good thing at all.

As far as my own perspective, and to give you a sense of where I’m coming from, I grew up in a middle-class family with parents who had to be careful about money. That home is where my values were formed, and I try to live those values every day. That’s why I married someone who shares those values, why Bill and I started our foundation, and why we’ve committed to giving away the majority of our wealth in our lifetimes. We believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. And we want to be part of making the world a more equal place, not the opposite.

You and Bill have used technology to a large extent to tackle some of the world’s toughest issues and make real change—but what do you make of technology’s role in facilitating some of our current problems, particularly with young people and the sense of isolation and loneliness that it creates?
This is a great question and one I think about a lot. I’m a big believer in the power of innovation to make lives better. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen technology transform the world and connect billions of people to new products and services and economic benefits.

But I also believe that technology is only a tool, and that means its impact on the world depends on who’s holding it. That’s why one of my main areas of focus is opening more pathways into tech for women and people of color. Diversifying tech is one of the most important things we can do to ensure that tech is a tool used for good.

I’m also working on how best to empower and protect young people in Generation Z who are navigating a new digital environment. We don’t have the same support systems for young people online as we do in offline environments like the classroom or around the dinner table at home. So we’re thinking about how to enable positive social connections between young people—while also ensuring that parents, teachers, coaches, and, yes, tech companies, are there to help.

As we move toward the next presidential election in 2020, what sort of leadership do you think our country most needs?
We need a leader who will bring people together—someone who will treat every American respectfully and every American equally. Someone who models America’s values for us and for the world.

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